About 5 years ago, the Clarks were living the life of many in America, more specifically, Sonoma Valley. They had two children, two jobs, and two pets.
For the purpose of this story, our family’s name has been changed to The Clarks to keep their identity private. I sat down to spend an afternoon with Mrs. Clark to discuss the events that brought her to poverty, her climb back up from the bottom, and how the Sonoma Valley Holiday Gifting Program restored her faith in humanity.
“We just worked, had a cute little family, watched the kids play sports, and had what I thought was my dream house.” At this point, she broke into tears, “It was just good.”
A typical Sonoma family, the Clarks were happy raising their children here and never thought anything would be different. That is, until one day, tragedy struck and sparked a series of events that took them from their dream house to loading their car with tubs marked “stay in the car” in case that was their only option for living moving forward.
“It was like for the first time, we were both working fulltime and had just gotten into the house, our favorite house, and everything wasgreat,” Clark said. “Then there was a car accident.” She told me that this caraccident almost broke her husbands back, yet he managed to continue to work part-time. Having some health issues in thepast, the stress of her husband’s pain, keeping the family going, and taking onthe financial head of the house was starting to take a toll on her aswell.
“Then there was a second
accident and what little work he could do, he couldn’t anymore.” In tears, she
tells me how she became the breadwinner
at a time when not only was she taking care of her family but their extended
family as well. “I was working probably 70 hours a week and I ended up with
pneumonia, out of work for about a month myself.”
At that point, her body gave up. Seeing specialists and beingput through countless inconclusive tests, doctors feared that she would neverrecover enough to go back to work. They had to give up the house.
I asked Clark what was to happen next?
“I had no idea. I was packing up the house and leaving and I had no idea where we were going. I remember at one point packing the car with tubs that said, ‘stay in the car’ for in case that’s where we’d be.” She told me there were several resources available to them if they split the family up, but couldn’t find a place for the family to stay together. “But it was already traumatizing enough to the kids to lose this house, and I wasn’t going to separate everyone.”
In an article for calmatters.org, Ben Metcalf, the director of the state Department of Housing & Community Development, mentions that our state’s low-income families spend more than half their income on housing.
“When you’re paying that much for housing, with so little left over, even a minor shock can start a cycle of homelessness.”[i]
Ben Metcalf, Director of the State Department of Housing & Community Development
Luckily, in the case of this family, the owner of several acres of land had an old RV and offered it to the family. While cramped, they were still all living together. Clark said, “So it was this super dark time, but then we were on this beautiful huge piece of land.” She said that while she still didn’t feel well and her husband was barely able to leave the bed even just to go the bathroom, it was important to get her kids outside to play every day.
During this time, with the support of her family, the children were homeschooled. Her oldest was ready to enter middle school and that’s when Clark had her moment of awakening. “I didn’t want my middle-schooler, who would quickly be a high-schooler to be living in that situation.”
“I knew no one was going to save me and I had to be the hero
for my kids.” She started to look at ways of improving her health. Eliminating
Gluten from her diet, for example,
immediately had a positive impact on her body. Soon after, she was able to
return to work on a part-time basis. “Once I started to feel a little better, I
just started trying to figure it out. And once I was working part-time, I was able to save enough to get
into a little apartment, which I thought would never be possible.”
At this time, she had been working with the local charity, F.I.S.H. (Friends in Sonoma Helping) on getting placed into that apartment. She recalls that it was the middle of November and she barely had enough money to cover the deposit and rent, let alone Christmas shopping. Because the Sonoma Valley Holiday GiftingProgram is completely anonymous, meaning she never met anyone from the charity or the generous gift giver, she can only guess that it was the nice lady from F.I.S.H. that nominated her family for the program.
“So, they had called and it was very important to me that the kids thought the gifts came from Santa. It’s so funny too because it was a time when they were questioning if Santa was real or not.” She continued on to tell me about the day the presents entered her house. Clark said, “The stuff covered my entire living room floor and I just sat down and cried. I cried because THAT was Santa!”
Constance Grizzell, the founder of the Holiday Program, estimates that about 80% of their recipients are families with 2-3 children. “We have helped 1800 families since 2103, with around 375 families receiving gifts in 2017 alone. In that time we have also helped around 2000 additional individuals including senior citizens, people with disabilities, the homeless, foster children, and emancipated youth.”
The Clarks continue to do well and in fact were able to give back in a major way. Mr. Clark was able to go back to work and Mrs. Clark began working full time again. One year from that Santa moment, they realized they were able to help. At this time, she connected with Grizzell and got her employer in on the good deed helping to pay that kindness forward.
Clark was adamant that she did not deserve this gift of
kindness. It was very hard for her to ask for help. “I had really lost my faith
in humanity. Then the fact that people I didn’t even know were willing to help
without judgment or caring where I came
from… they just restored my faith in humanity.”
When asked what Grizzell would say to a recipient who feels
undeserving, she responded, “Some non-profit organization or school felt that
holiday gifts might provide you joy in what might be a time of personal family
hardships. Gratefully accept the help of our community and pay it forward when
Contact us today to see how you can help another family like the Clarks this holiday season.